Hardly anyone ever remembers Simeon Toribio and Miguel White. Toribio was the dominant force in Asian high jumping back in the 1930’s, lording it over the old Far Eastern Games, the pre-cursor of today’s Asian Games. The Boholano won the Philippines’ first medal in athletics at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, a bronze in the high jump. Four years later in Berlin, White emulated Toribio’s feat in the 400m low hurdles.
The Philippines is in the midst a running boom. Hardly a weekend goes by without a running event in the offing. A multitude of companies (from pharmaceuticals to bakeshops) utilize running events to better market their respective products. The past few years have seen the arrival of professional East African distance runners who regularly take part – and dominate – the cash-rich road races all over the country.
One can consider the running boom as just a fad. However, running has perhaps been embedded deeper than billiards, boxing and badminton. With the multitude of running events, surely, the running bug has afflicted quite a large number of citizens. Besides, running is a relatively cheap physical activity – if you don’t join those expensive races, that is. To get that addictive runner’s high, one only needs a good pair of shoes and comfy clothes. Running, apparently, is here to stay.
As an athletics junkie and a track athlete, I’ve often wondered how this exponential interest in running could trickle down to the other disciplines of the sport. After all, the far less popular track events are, in principle, similar to these road races. The object of a sprint race and a road race is simple: to reach the finish line in the shortest possible time. Despite vast differences in tactics, training, strategy and event rules, the ultimate objective remain fundamentally the same.
The sport has almost been completely neglected by the media, corporate sponsors and the general viewing public. An infusion of interest, trickling down from the running boom, could be the driving force for an athletics renaissance.
To illustrate the current state of Philippine athletics, the medal-winning performances of Toribio and White are still competitive against the current generation of track & field athletes. For instance, Toribio’s 1.97m leap, accomplished using the old-school straddle method, at the 1932 Olympic Games high jump final is still good enough for the top three at the 2011 Philippine National Games. Similarly, White’s 52.8s time in the low hurdles would wallop most of the country’s top-level intermediate hurdlers.
Aside from a resurgence in the Gintong Alay days and a brief revival in the early oughts, Philippine athletics has been on a sharp downtrend. Since those double bronze medals in the thirties, the best finish of a Filipino in the Olympic Games was Hector Begeo’s semi-finals appearance at the 3,000m steeplechase. Even the great Lydia de Vega and Isidro del Prado could only reach up to the second round.
Although our lean and mean athletics squad is fairly formidable in the Southeast Asian Games, they wither in higher-level competitions such as the Asian Games. Our last medal in the said quadrennial event came way back at the 1994 Hiroshima Games. The Olympic “A” and “B” standards for athletics are much too high for the majority of our track & field elite; hence, the country only sends a handful of wild card representatives.
With these forgettable performances, it is unsurprising that athletics, despite its status as the centerpiece of the Olympics, languishes in terms of popularity and funding.
It is unfortunate considering the huge amounts of talent our country has to offer. Despite our lack of an honest-to-goodness grassroots development program, hordes of young athletes crowd the Palarong Pambansa and the Batang Pinoy Games. The cream of the crop progresses to the country’s top universities. As these talents grow older, however, their ranks thin. Except for a talented few that joins the ranks of the national team or the Armed Forces, graduation almost always means retirement from the sport. Case in point is the Philippine National Games. Some senior events were held as a straight-off final, with the athletes barely going beyond eight in a heat. In the youth and junior competitions, qualifying heats could number up to four.
To make a living out of the sport is grossly inadequate, especially when the prospective elite athlete has to provide for one’s family. In light of the gap in terms of elite-level performance and our local talent, a sustainable career in the international professional athletics circuit is next to impossible.
Nevertheless, a schools-based sports system, albeit crude; exists for local track & field. A clubs-based system is imperative to lift the dismal standing of the sport. One can start from the existing Armed Forces teams. The multitude of companies that sponsor weekly road runs could perhaps invest in their respective corporate teams, similar to the commercial athletics squads in Japan, an Asian track & field powerhouse. Moreover, university teams could field their crack varsity teams bolstered by select alumni.
What the sport needs is a winning figure: a marketable, articulate athlete that can act as the lightning rod of attention for this neglected discipline. It doesn’t have to be at the same level as a Manny Pacquiao, Efren Reyes or Paeng Nepomuceno. Someone who excels at the Asian level (the Southeast Asian level is much too small) would be a viable candidate. Having a world-beater as a national icon would jump-start the lethargic sport.
A promising niche market, national interest and larger-than-life track & field star could perhaps provide the catalyst for an athletics boom in the Philippines. If countries like Jamaica (sprints), Cuba (jumps and hurdles), Kenya (distance running) and Ethiopia (distance running)– whose level of economic development is more or less comparable to our own – I see no reason for the Philippines to find its own niche in this medal-rich Olympic event.
The resurgence of athletics will not happen overnight. It will take generations to overhaul our highly politicized system to equip the Filipino athlete as a world-beater.
Each time I read about a promising provincial lad making waves in the Palarong Pambansa or see a bunch of kids exuberantly running laps around Ultra with their running-bug afflicted parents, the future of the sport looks bright. Perhaps some time in the not-too-distant future, a Filipino could once again stand on the coveted Olympic podium, this time with the “Lupang Hinirang” proudly playing in the background.